randombio.com | science commentary
Friday, December 07, 2018

Blame bureaucrats, not professors, for the state of our universities

Administrators and grants are the real causes of the corruption at our universities

I recently had the opportunity to present my research to an audience at a big university somewhere in a large southern state. After speaking with their faculty at some length, I came to realize that there are huge differences between this school and some of our older universities up north and on the coast.

I was brought there to interview with some little institute that was affiliated with them. A friend of mine had worked there, though I hadn't had a chance to ask him his opinion. What I learned was that, while the university faculty were thoroughly professional (and a joy to discuss science with), the institute was purely parasitical.

The lab they offered me was a dingy little room, similar to the one in my basement, only smaller and with much less scientific equipment. How, I asked, was I supposed to do cutting-edge biochemistry without a centrifuge, spectrometer, or a pH meter? Answer: you buy them out of your grant. Your salary will be paid from your grant as well. . . . You do have a grant, don't you?

It turned out that their business model is to suck the grant money from the researchers that they hire, get equipment from them, have the government pay their salaries, patent their discoveries, and then hire new ones. Seeing the anxious faces of the employees who I met there helped me under­stand why my friend fled from it in such a panic that he ended up at CSR (Center for Scientific Review, the department at NIH where they read your grants), which is the place to which all maltreated researchers sooner or later seem to gravitate.

God handing forms to Adam (Sistine Chapel)
Artist's depiction of a bureaucrat giving forms to a faculty member (Sistine Chapel)


So it's not a geographical thing, but differences in how grants are administered. Research grants, on which every faculty member depends for continued employment, are not awarded to the faculty members who do the research, but to the institution, and this gives university admin­is­trators life-and-death power over the faculty. They use this power to crush any resistance. Every faculty member knows that if they leave, the bureau­crat can destroy his or her career simply by refusing to transfer their grant to the new institution. On a whim, they can force a professor with thirty years of stellar research into early retirement, especially if the professor lacks tenure, and the funding agency will let them do it. I've seen it happen.

How common this is depends on the culture of the institution; in many places it turns bureaucrats into monsters. At one university where I worked, the adminis­trators took sadistic pleasure in terrorizing the faculty. A longtime friend of mine was (and still is, I guess) a tenured physiology professor there. Over the years the bureaucrats wore him down from a smart, hard-headed researcher into a simpering yes-man. He is now a sad, dejected, and passive person, waxing philosophical about how the reason his space is shrinking is that he represents the old guard who must make way for the new. Whatever the school wants instantly becomes what he wants. As in the old cliché, when they tell him to jump, he says “how high?”.

Part of that might be that his tenure was granted on the basis of a discovery that turned out to be wrong. In a reasonable system, he would publish a note to alert his colleagues that the finding turned out to be a fluke, and save them from following it down its dead-end path. But the reward system on campuses is such that no faculty member would ever dare consider such a thing. So he was forced to pretend it was a great discovery. Admitting the truth is embarrassing, but being forced to lie is worse: it is a burden the human spirit cannot bear.

The Ice Machine Caper

Bureaucrats exercise their power by leveraging trivia. One time this professor's ice machine, which researchers use to make crushed ice to cool their experiments, broke down. Now, ice machines are not rocket science (unless you hook them up wrong, in which case they do in some ways resemble rockets, but in an amusing way). In fact, it had a simple problem that anyone could easily have repaired. (I marvel about how much money is wasted replacing equipment that anyone with a bit of knowledge and skill could fix. And oh, how they go through $300 pipettors, having no clue about such arcana as O-rings.) But he was advised to get a new one, which he did.

Months later, he got a nasty email from one of the bureaucrats informing him that there was no record of anyone ever putting a property tag on it. There was, apparently, a form, which nobody knew existed, that had not been filled out. The bureaucrat notified him in no uncertain terms that this was a severe violation and the consequences would be dire. Retribution would be taken. Heads would roll.

Now, putting property tags on things is not, in itself, a complicated task; even an intersectional women's studies professor could probably do it. Nor did anyone ever tell anyone what the procedure for getting a property tag might be. If there was one, it surely involved filling out a number of forms and knowing to which pompous official they had to be sent.

On receiving this email, this professor ran over to the ice machine in a state of panic. I have never seen anyone so scared. Having no idea what to do, he apologized profusely to the bureaucrat. His self-abasement was pitiful to watch, but it was successful, as abasement is the currency in which bureaucrats deal.

My reaction would have been quite different: I would have told the bureaucrat to piss off with his threats, and if he wanted to put a property tag on that ice machine he was welcome to do so. Or he could send me one and I'd be happy to stick it on for him. But if I said that, the bureaucrats would have taken revenge.

The Chemical Disposal Affair

Another time, an administrator sent an even nastier memo to some people who were leaving. It said they were required to dispose of all chemicals, clean the lab, and to provide certification that it has been decontaminated of any biologics or radioactive substances.

This is a big deal, as a lab might have thousands of chemicals, many of which are insanely expensive. It is sometimes claimed that diamond, at $55,000 per gram, is the most expensive material. It is not true. I once synthesized one gram of a compound whose going price was something like two million bucks a gram. (It was a bit embarrassing when the vial tipped over and half of it got spilled, but the starting materials were cheap). We once did a clinical trial with a chemical called bryostatin 1, which Sigma sells for $176 for ten micrograms, or $17.6 million per gram*. Several milligrams, worth almost 100K, were left over, and since it had been out of our chain of custody and was therefore no longer GMP grade, it had to be tossed.

Anyway, the researchers already knew that these chemicals had to be disposed of, and they had long since done so. But the memo went on to threaten them if they failed to comply: the university would trash their grants, thereby killing their careers, and they would do this and that, up to and possibly including legal action. The bureaucrat insisted that they acknowledge receiving the notice and helpfully enclosed some forms that they had to fill out, or else.

Whose fault is it?

Not all administrators are this evil, but many no longer see their role as helping staff navigate through the reams of conflicting rules imposed upon them. They see themselves as enforcers: they are the ones who are in charge, and they assert their dominance over the staff at every opportunity. They can invent new rules at will and impose draconian punishments as they see fit. They are under no obligation to tell anyone what those rules are. The less the faculty knows what is required and what is forbidden, the easier it is to threaten and cow them into submission, which is the purpose of the rules.

Their power derives not from the university, but from the fact that funding goes to the institution instead of the researcher. The funding agencies do this to ensure accountability, but its effect is to turn professors into serfs.

Outsiders sometimes imagine college professors as cowardly, befuddled academics who are afraid to stand up to their bosses or to snowflake students. That reputation, at many schools, is well deserved. But the professors were not born that way. Living under the constant threat of being made unemployable, of being prevented from doing the work that inspires them, and of being stripped of the prestige purchased over a lifetime of form-filling, butt-kissing, and teaching of the ineducable would make anyone feel as if they were in constant danger of being tossed into Lubyanka en route to Novosibirsk. Many of them are broken shells of human beings, and it shows in the timidity of their scientific research.

That is why seeing a school where the culture is different, and noting how their research and prestige have soared as a result, is so beneficial. That university in the South will become great, but it won't last. Sooner or later bureaucratic venom will eat away at the social bonds among the staff. The faculty will get elbow patches on their jackets and scuff marks on their knees, and they will bend their heads in submission.

Some might be inclined to take solace from their well-deserved humiliation, but the price for all of us will be heavy. We tend to think of bureaucrats as being vindictive for political reasons, but politics is only the excuse—the real cause is their unrestrained power.

* Equivalent to $7.983 billion per pound. A US dime weighs 2.26 grams. If dimes were made of bryostatin, they would be worth 39.78 million bucks.

dec 07 2018, 9:03 am. revised dec 08 2018, 4:46 am

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